Welcome to the age of “cobots”

In the workplace of the future, robots will be the partners, not rivals, of humans, writes Joji Sakurai

Home Life Innovation technology Welcome to the age of “cobots”

At Tokyo's Narita Airport, baggage handlers lift suitcases off cargo wagons and on to conveyor belts. Look closer at this familiar scene and you may glimpse the future of labour: wrapped around the workers' waists are robotic exoskeletons that assist the heavy lifting. 

It's one of a handful of technologies that are merging people and machines to lend bionic strength plus endurance to human capabilities on the factory floor, on construction sites, in disaster relief and more. 

Welcome to the age of “cobots” 01
Welcome to the age of “cobots” 01

The HAL exoskeleton developed by Japanese tech firm Cyberdyne interprets human intention by detecting bioelectric signals that rise to the skin when the brain instructs muscles to move, causing the device to operate in synch with the user's body. When the worker squats, the robotic hip squats with her. When the worker lifts, the cyborg support snaps into action to power that lift.

Amid fears of robots making human workers obsolete, HAL is an example of a more promising reality: a world of “cobots”, in which robots and humans complement each other rather than compete. It's a world of creative synergies where robot qualities of power, speed, data processing and extreme precision enhance (and liberate) human capabilities of innovation, judgment, intuition and spontaneity.

This new model of “cobotic” collaboration is already transforming industries, from car manufacturing to fruit farming.

Cobot co-operation

In the auto industry, BMW has deployed cobots built by US firm Universal Robots at plants in America and Germany to transform productivity and precision on the assembly line. The digitally-connected robots are strong enough for strenuous tasks and sufficiently nimble to stay out of the way of humans, freeing up people to focus on more challenging cognitive tasks. 

Mercedes-Benz caused a stir three years ago by replacing robots in its factories with humans. “Mercedes Boots Robots From the Production Line,” ran the Bloomberg headline. Yet the point of the exercise, according to a commentary in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), was to upgrade rather than downgrade robots by deploying smaller, more agile machines that required human interaction to maximise their value. The initiative allowed Mercedes to “achieve unprecedented levels of customization” as customers increasingly demand more personalisation of their luxury cars.

“Traditionally, car manufacturing has been a rigid process with automated steps executed by ‘dumb' robots,” H. James Wilson and Paul Daugherty, co-authors of Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI, wrote in the HBR. “To improve flexibility, Mercedes replaced some of those robots with AI-enabled cobots and redesigned its processes around human-machine collaborations.”

In the past, machines and humans worked in separate areas cordoned off by protective fences. Now, AI is transforming manufacturing robots from mindless, potentially-lethal industrial machines into intelligent partners that can be shaped and guided by human decision-making.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) enables sensor-fitted robots to glide alongside human colleagues in a finely-tuned digital ballet, eliminating the need for safety fences. Sensors simply detect the risk of a collision, causing the robot to alter its path, slow down or stop, using the same approach as autonomous vehicles.

Welcome to the age of “cobots” 02
Welcome to the age of “cobots” 02

More (not less) jobs for humans

The concept of robots OR humans is becoming an outmoded choice. Breakthroughs in innovation, productivity and cost savings are being driven by the cobot model: in research involving 1,500 companies, authors Wilson and Daugherty found that “firms achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together”.

Meanwhile in The Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum predicted last year that while automation will displace 75 million jobs by 2022, 133 million new roles will also be created, for an ultimate net gain of 58 million. 

The rise of robots is generating significant new demand for roles such as data analysts, machine-learning specialists and operations managers, to guide intelligent machines and ensure the safety of human-robot collaboration. Moreover, as the elderly make up an increasingly high proportion of the population of developed countries, cobots will help humans work longer by reducing their physical burden – another way in which robots will help plug labour shortages.

Pirelli has been using robots in its production for more than 20 years and notes the way the relationship with machines has evolved. Today, the company's focus is on introducing digital technology to deliver more accurate information and help manage factories. It has a project with the Polytechnic University of Milan to optimise a control tower for the factory floor that can process the vast amounts of information coming in from hundreds of machines.

From industry to farming

The robot-human partnership is also making its way into farming. Washington State University developed a harvest platform that uses a human-robot interface enabling the human operator to guide the robotic hand to any fruit it may have missed. And a Japanese university developed a robotic strawberry-picker that uses AI image recognition to select the most succulent fruit. With robot helpers, farmers can focus their energies on developing the finest produce, while carrying out precision quality control. 

Between robots and humans, many signs point to the beginning of a beautiful (and fruitful) friendship.